HOUSE PANEL STEPS INTO JOE CAMEL PROBE

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WASHINGTON-In a rare display of congressional intervention, a House subcommittee is demanding access to the Federal Trade Commission's 3-year-old investigation of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Joe Camel ad campaign.

Rep. Al Swift (D., Wash.) has asked an aide to review all materials the FTC has collected during the probe and determine its status. Rep. Swift is chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation & Hazardous Materials, which has regulatory jurisdiction over the FTC.

"We are looking at all the documentation," said Scott Cooper, the subcommittee aide assigned to review the Joe Camel papers. "It's rare for us to request something like this, [but] there's a perception that the case is being stalled at the commission for procedural reasons and that it is not being looked at substantively."

Mr. Cooper declined to say whether the request to review materials was a precursor to congressional hearings.

The move comes in response to a request from the Coalition on Smoking OR Health. That group petitioned the FTC on Dec. 11, 1991, to ban the controversial cartoon-based campaign on the grounds it targeted youths.

The case has languished without a formal vote since last year, when the staff of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection recommended the commission issue an advertising complaint.

Only once before since Rep. Swift assumed the subcommittee chair three years ago was there a similar demand: that was in 1991, to review advertising and marketing materials amassed during an agency probe of on-campus promotions by brewers. The FTC took no public action in that case.

Although neither the FTC nor RJR would comment, it's widely known that FTC Chairman Janet Steiger, a Republican, and Commissioner Dennis Yao, a Democrat, favor issuing an advertising complaint against RJR. But Republican Commissioners Deborah Owen and Roscoe Starek disagree, and Mary Azcuenaga, an independent, is said to be undecided.

Mr. Cooper declined to discuss any findings from the sensitive proprietary information that comprises the FTC investigation, but acknowledged that Rep. Swift's decision to review the matter could be interpreted as pressuring the independent regulatory agency.

"I could see where someone could pick that indication up," Mr. Cooper said.

In his March 4 letter to Ms. Steiger, Rep. Swift said he was "concerned that a proposed complaint against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for allegedly creating an advertising campaign that encourages minors to take up smoking ... has not been addressed by the FTC in an expeditious manner."

Barry Cutler, a Washington attorney who headed the Bureau of Consumer Protection when the anti-tobacco groups filed their Joe Camel petition, said the congressional request was uncommon but not unheard of.

"I don't know what is in Rep. Swift's mind, but this certainly evidences interest in the issue by the committee," he said.

A former FTC commissioner who requested anonymity said the inquiry, re-gardless of motivation, pressures the commissioners to act.

"This is very unusual," the former commissioner said. "Generally speaking, when an inquiry like this comes over from a committee, it carries with it some comment to suggest why is the commission fooling around for so long-kind of a fish-or-cut-bait message."

Scott Ballin, chairman of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, said he learned last spring an FTC decision was due.

"Now we keep hearing that there will be a vote, but nothing happens," said Mr. Ballin, whose group includes the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Cancer Society.

One problem believed to vex the commission is what kind of penalty to assess RJR if the campaign is found unfair or misleading. An attorney familiar with the case said banning cartoon characters in ads would of questionable legal grounding, given the use of similar animated characters in blatantly adult-targeted campaigns. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., for example, relies on the "Peanuts" cast to sell life insurance.

The Joe Camel character was first drawn for a 1974 French Camel campaign and since 1987 has been a major feature of the U.S. campaign, currently handled by Mezzina/Brown, New York. Last year, RJR spent $45 million on Camel media advertising, with direct marketing and merchandising programs easily pushing the total past $100 million.

The last thing tobacco marketers need is another black eye, and certainly an FTC complaint against the No. 2 cigarette marketer for unfair or deceptive advertising would be just that. RJR has consistently denied charges it targets youths with the cartoon campaign that has reinvigorated the formerly stagnant brand.

Anti-tobacco groups have been increasingly critical of the Joe Camel cartoon campaign, buttressed by outspoken support from Clinton administration Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and by medical studies claiming to link the campaign to increased smoking among teens.

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